Departing the Mist
It was a pilgrimage into the silent jaws of death. One that all bucks make; after all, what buck of any value could watch their mate suffer? His heart still pounded in his chest. As a fawn, Ephyr was learned never to trust silence. And, as he ventured further into the wood, not even the mist breathed. “Ephyr.” A voice rang out through the deafening silence. “My friend, hark! It is I!” “Who is this ‘I’?” Ephyr’s hooves slowed to a stop and he turned back, ears flicking. Another Ren manifested in the mist. He resembled a deer, but was much larger, and a brilliant white that blended with the haze around them. Through the fog, Ephyr recognized Tziv. “Dear Ephyr,” he said. “It is this I, your friend. You have come for the herbs to ease your mate’s birth, and I am here to help you. They grow not far from here.” “That is not what I asked, brother. Who are you?” “Do you not recognize me, Ephyr? Do you have no memory of playing in the lea as fawns?” The other Ren drew closer. He could see now that the other Ren lacked half an antler, the same one Tsiv had lost earlier in the autumn. “By the Great Tzel-ev, answer my question! What is your name?” “Ephyr, come,” said the voice of Tziv as he ran just past him. “It is not far now.” He felt the body of the other Ren brush against his flank. “Go from me, fae!”
“Shall we speak of something else?” “Perhaps we should, my heart. Tell me, what happened in the wood?” Guilt clawed at his belly like a wolf. “Well, I saw a young Human.” “Fae?” “I don’t believe so; she did not see I was there. She called for her father.” Tsibia allowed the words to sink in. “If her father cannot help her, she will die. No one else will aid her.” “There are other Humans in that part of the wood.” He felt as if he would vomit. “You believe other Humans will help her? You told me just yesterday that you saw a pack of them skinning another alive. Tsel-ev would be more merciful to have a fae drown the poor child.” “This is no more comforting than worrying for our own fawns.” He rose. “I shall leave you to rest.” The thought of finding the child in the clutches of the fae seized his mind and held fast. He could not go. His own fawns needed him. Tsibia needed him. What did the affairs of Humans matter to a Ren? Surely the concern was just misplaced worry from their own fawns. The air outside was cool, too cool for insects. However, when he lay in the grass, he felt his skin crawling with thousands of biting flies. He could not see them, but his skin itched no matter how he tried to get them off. His breath quickened, and the nausea still had not passed. He tried to force the guilt down into his belly, but it did not work. Tsel-ev had spoken clearly enough.
The air in the meadow was tranquil. Just on the other side of the lea, Tsiv pulled yellowing leaves from an oak. Ephyr sidled up to him. “I hope the day finds you well, brother.” Tsiv spoke through a mouthful of leaves. “And you.” As he tried to formulate his words, Tsiv eyed him suspiciously. “Would you accompany me on an errand?” Tsiv took his time munching on his dinner, so Ephyr continued. “I stumbled upon something strange while gathering Tsibia’s herbs.” “How do you mean?” Ephyr lowered his voice. “I found a young Human. She will die without someone’s help.” “What is your name, brother?” “My name Ephyr. It is truly me, Tsiv. Please, will you accompany me?” “Ephyr, how could you ask such a thing? I have a fawn to care for and you have fawns on their way. Why should you place your life in the jaws of a wolf for a Human?” “It will be safer the more-” “The more bucks you take from my lea?” Ephyr whipped around, seeing a huge buck looming over him. His face was cast in shadow. Cursed was King Ayalon, to be perpetually haunted by the upturned skull of the previous king. It loomed over his own, their antlers locked in a never-ending battle. “Leaving the clearing is perilous enough. Asking anyone to go for the sake of a Human is-” “You would leave her to die?” “You forget to whom you speak.” His ears folded against his neck. The skull atop King Ayalon’s antlers shifted just slightly to stare at him with its black, hollow eyes. “Be gone then If you are so hungry to prove yourself brave.” "Unlike His Majesty, I detest smelling blood in the air. Even the blood of a Human. Perhaps he has grown accustomed to it from the skull atop his head.” “Ephyr!” “You disrespectful creature! Be gone from my lea! If you believe I am cruel, then face the isles. Return if they spare you.” Ephyr fled, narrowly avoiding the skull and the King’s antlers. He was driven from the lea along with a gust of wind. It took Ephyr little time to find the place where he encountered the Human. His stomach dropped when she was nowhere to be found by the fallen log. He considered calling for her; the wood was lively. His voice caught in his throat. What if she was already dead? He had first seen her a mere hour prior, but tragedy could strike well within an hour. He knew that well. A rustle in the bushes drew his attention past the trees. A mistake. He heard a shriek from behind him and turned just in time to see a shape fast approaching. His muscles reacted without his mind, sending him toward the fallen log. Knees collided with decaying wood and he fell. His jaw slammed into the dirt. Blood red leaves scattered across the ground. He felt a jab in his side, but nothing more. Confused, he righted himself to face his attacker, a young Human with a somewhat sharpened branch. She jabbed it between his ribs. It was a genuine attempt to kill him, but he felt no fear. Not to be dissuaded, the girl attempted to spear him again. “Die!” “Stop that,” he said in the Human’s tongue. He turned, avoiding another jab. “A demon!” Her eyes filled with terror. She abandoned the spear tactic and instead resorted to beating him with the broad side of the branch. “I am no demon!” His white fur was now scuffed and dirtied, and his hide stung where he had been struck. He stepped toward her, but she scrambled atop the fallen log. “If I was a demon-” The stick shattered against his antlers. Shards of wood exploded in every direction. A moment passed before he could compose himself. “If I was a demon, I would not let you beat me. Would I?” “You’re a talking deer. Of course you’re a demon.” The girl lowered what was left of her stick, but kept it at the ready. “I am a Ren, and I have no intention of harming you.” “Aren is a strange name.” A moment passed before he understood. “No, a Ren is what I am. My name is Ephyr.” “Ephyr is a strange name, too.” The girl looked as though she was contemplating something important. Finally, she set the branch in the leaf litter. “My name is Nara. A ‘Ren’. Is that the other white stag I saw?” The wind shifted. “Perhaps. Have you decided not to hunt me?” “I don’t eat things that talk.” “A good philosophy, I’m sure.” He brushed his fur back into place with his tongue. “Tell me, Nara. Why are you out here all alone?” Her expression fell like the amber leaves around them. “My father didn’t return yesterday. I want to search for him, but he told me not to leave here alone. He said he would return before nightfall.” She dove into the fallen tree which had a sizeable hollow. When she returned, she held a bundle of rags. They were sewn together in the form of a vaguely four-legged animal. Puzzled, he stared at the doll until she forced it just under his nose. “Can you find him?” “I can try,” he answered, puzzled. His head shot backwards from the pungent smell and filth set deep within the toy. Carefully, he pushed the doll down with his hoof. “You can track him with this. Like our foxhound!” She lifted it again, insistent that he smell the musty old doll. “Oh, no, I cannot do that.” He backed away from the fallen log. “But I will help you. Which direction did he go?” Clutching her doll, she pointed south. Without warning she seized his pelt. She attempted to pull herself onto his back. Initially, he was revolted by the idea, but he realized he could not ask her to keep his pace. He knelt and she climbed on, settling just behind his shoulder blades. With that they were off. A short while later, they passed beneath the trunk of a tree, suspended above the dry riverbed by a large, vaguely head-shaped rock. The weight shifted on Ephyr’s back with a surprised cry. He looked up and saw her rubbing her head, eyes narrowed in annoyance back at the trunk of the dead tree disappearing into the mist behind them. “Were you not looking ahead?” he asked as he came to a halt. Her attention returned to the sky. “Look!” she said, pointing upwards. “You must lower your voice here. We are not somewhere safe.” He humored her; his neck stretched as he peered between the leaves above them. High above their heads, the sun fought to peer down onto the isle. The cloud skillfully kept it at bay. After all, the clouds over the islands trained every day for years and were skilled at battling the sun. “I haven’t seen the sun since we came here.” Her shoulders slumped and her arm fell back to his back. “When did you arrive here?” “A quarter year ago, late in the summer,” she replied. They watched the cloud for a moment in silence. “Do you think it will win against the clouds?” “The sun? Years have passed without this land seeing the sun, young one.” The forest’s melody died down as he neared a dried river. “But if it’s strong enough, it might.” “It might.” His voice was but a whisper now. The trail narrowed, passing between the banks of the long-dead river. Something felt wrong. “I miss the sun. I miss the stars. I miss-” He shushed the girl and she tensed, holding his neck tighter. In the silence, he heard his heartbeat increasing in speed. The banks closed in further until they pressed against his sides. All noise ceased. Not even the wind passed between the trunks of the dead and dying trees. They rounded a bend. In an instant, he stopped short and jumped back. Not expecting the sudden change in direction, she fell against his neck. A ring, barely visible, in the haze, blocked their path. Partially made of mushrooms, partially of river rock, and partially by the bones of a mouse scattered by the hawk that had eaten its flesh. A lesser-trained eye would easily have missed it. He tried to turn, but the banks closed him in too tightly. With no other options, he resorted to backing round the bend as quickly as he could.
“What’s-” “I said be quiet, girl.” The banks relinquished their grip on his sides, and he turned to leave the riverbed. He trotted away from the dead river, wishing he could go faster without causing the young Human to fall. Until he heard the chants of crickets, he ran. In silence, he carried them for another moment. “Why did you stop? Wasn’t that where we were going?” “There are rules of this land. It would serve you well to know them.” “Will you teach them to me?” she asked. “These rules are best explained by one’s father.” The alternate route to the meadow was wrought with dips filled with stagnant, stinking water. He jumped over one such puddle, back hooves barely landing on the other side. “I don’t think my father knows them. Will you tell them to him when we find him?” The silence returned and he adjusted his course back toward the birdsong. The cloud passed and the sun pierced the forest with splinters of light. Colors that eluded even his dreams danced where the sunlight and mist embraced. Perhaps because they thought any noise would scare the sun back behind the clouds, neither of them spoke. After a moment, Nara said, “Rainbow.” Her voice barely raised above a whisper, reverent in view of this rainbow. “Is that its name?” He found his voice also stayed but a whisper. She nodded. “Rainbow.” Quietly, they passed through the bands of light.
The sun’s smile was short-lived. Ephyr followed a game track down the hill as the light disappeared behind a cloud and shade crept over the wood. Startled by their presence, a hare tore away into the underbrush. They reached the bottom of the hill and crossed a stream. Halting, Ephyr was careful to let each hoof pass through the water. “Can that rabbit talk, too?” Nara asked. “The fae speak, the Humans speak, and the Ren speak, but other creatures do not.” He turned and followed the subtle path up the next hill. “Why are we going in this direction? How do you know my father went this way?” The forest had a way of guiding those who travel through it. Even if Nara’s father did not realize it, he was likely on this trail. They surmounted the hill and made a sharp turn down toward the valley below. Around the bend, they saw a path dotted with stacked stones. He hesitated there for a moment before following it as it wound its way back up the hill. As they neared the top of the hill, the stones became more and more shrouded in thick layers of moss. His antlers pierced a cobweb that had been spun across the path. No one had traveled this way in a long time. At the top was a ring of rotting wooden poles. They, too, were being engulfed in vines. In the center of the poles rested a stone pillar topped with the head of a wolf. Its mouth lay agape, and vines crept up nearly all the way to its neck. At its base sat a stone bowl, hungering for offerings other than the orange leaves it currently held. He examined the scene before kneeling to let her down. “We must find something to eat.” “Good! I’m starving!” Nara said. She heartily patted her belly. That was not the reason they were stopping there, but it did not matter to Ephyr what the child believed. Together they foraged through the leaf litter until he stumbled upon some dandelions growing near a boulder. They had long since lost their cheery yellow flowers in the chill of the recent nights, but their leaves were unmistakable. She plucked them from the dirt. On their way back to the shrine, Nara spotted some apples growing high in the branches of a twisted tree. “Can we pick those too?” The apples scattering the leaf litter were brown and rotting, but the fresh apples grew well out of his reach. This mattered not to Nara. She set the dandelions on his back and began to ascend the gnarled apple tree toward her prize. Her doll dangled from a belt around her midsection. From the forest floor, he watched nervously. Higher and higher she climbed; thinner and thinner grew the branches. Once she reached a branch with several apples, she climbed outward. The entire branch snapped almost immediately, plummeting to the ground and nearly crushing him. He leapt back and, once composed, searched for her among the blood-red leaves and twigs. She erupted out of the branches just a short distance away. Her hair was even more disheveled than before, but she seemed unharmed. “I got them!” On her face was a wide and proud smile. “Reckless child.” His head shook and he signed. The dandelions had fallen, so he retrieved them. Meanwhile, she plucked the apples from the fallen branch. “My father told me I have to be brave. I was brave and now we have apples.” With their feast in tow, they returned to the shrine. He cleared the leaves from the stone bowl and replaced them with an apple and a few dandelion stems. He then directed her to a grassy spot just past the wooden poles. They settled into the leaves and grass and shared the dandelion roots and the remainder of the apples. In the peace of the afternoon he said, “You know, bravery is not recklessness.” She did not answer, instead finishing the last apple. “What is the reason you are in the Enselara Islands?” She stopped chewing. “My father moved to Traitor’s Bay searching for work.” “I know of only two types of Humans who venture into the wood. Those gathering unicorns, and those who have broken the laws of the Otherlands. Unicorn hunters do not bring their offspring.” “How do you know this?” Apple juice drizzled down her chin as she forced the words out of her too-full mouth. “While Humans speak, Ren observe.” She hesitated, finishing the bite of apple before answering. “My father, my mother and I were brought here.” “Where is your mother?” No sooner had the words left his mouth that he regretted them. Her mouth set firmly as if she was fighting very hard to retain her composure. Her brows furrowed. “We don’t talk about my mother.” When bad things happened to a loved one, he found it helpful to speak about it. He waited for her to volunteer something, but instead she tossed the apple core into the underbrush. In time, she would be ready. “Your parents broke a law, but why are you here? Did you not have family who could house you?” “I have family.” “Then why were you sent here? Were you punished along with your father?” He wasn’t sure he understood. “I suppose.” That was all she had to say, and he did not pursue the conversation further. As they rose to leave, they passed the stone bowl at the base of the wolf head statue. It lay empty now, but no tracks in the mud covered their own. He turned to leave, but Nara remained, staring at the empty bowl. “Where did it go?” “It was a gift to Tsel-ev. Did you not expect him to take it?” “How did you know it was him, and not one of those demons?” “How did you know I was not ‘one of those demons’?” “Because you said you would not harm me.” In truth, the child had no reason to believe him but faith. Words can amount to very little. This, too, she would learn in time. They followed the trail back down the hill. He was sure to step through the fast-flowing stream cutting across the path. She pointed, nearly falling from his shoulders into the mud. “Look there!” Through the cattails and stones was a set of footprints. They were left by a Human, there was no doubt. “It may be my father!” He supposed he should not have been surprised that a Human was able to track something easily. Still, the age at which Humans learned to hunt shocked him. Without hesitation, he turned and followed the footprints. “This is just like hunting stags with my father,” she said. “Except, well.” Her voice trailed off. “Instead of my father and I pursuing a stag, a stag and I are chasing my father.” Unamused, he continued on until the air grew thick. He tasted the air. “Do you smell that?” he asked. Smoke. They walked upwind, toward its source. Please, Tsel-ev, he prayed. Let this be her father. A few moments later, they saw the telltale orange flicker of a fire. He felt her slip from his back a moment too late. “Father!” she cried as she tore through the mist and out of sight. She was met by the voice of a stranger. “Ah, who’s this?” Taking care to not be heard, he crept just far enough to watch, unseen. She stood just in front of him, out of the cover of the brome. “My name is Nara, and I am searching for my father.” He cursed the child’s inability to remain hidden as another stranger laughed darkly. “Is that so.” “Did he come through here?” There was no other option. He stepped out of the grass and into view. He knelt beside her and whispered, “Nara, come.” Though his voice had been low, he noticed the men lean in closer to them.
“Better run on home,” the first stranger said. A scar cleaved his face in half; only one eye stared back at him. “It’s dangerous out here.” She took a moment to answer. The glint of a knife flashed orange. She climbed back onto Ephyr’s shoulders. “Yes, I think we should.” As soon as they were safe from the prying ears of the strangers, Nara said, “If I could have gotten that knife, we would be safe!” Willow tree leaves tangled in his antlers. They pulled his head backward until he snapped them loose. The tree shook, raining down leaves and soft green sticks. She plucked the strings of leaves from his antlers. “Knowledge will carry you much further here than a blade.” He turned back towards the river they had crossed. “Why are we going back that way? Shouldn’t we keep following my father’s footprints?” The sigh escaped Ephyr’s nose like a fleeing hare. The tracks belonged to those Humans warming themselves by the fire. As if he hadn’t heard her at all, he walked toward the river. “Those tracks did belong to my father. Did you not notice that the tracks were made by boots? Those men had footwraps.” His ears perked. Perhaps she was not as unobservant as he had feared. He began to search through all the tracks left by the strangers. A few moments later, he found the footprints – the ones made by boots - in the mud once more. “Why do you suppose he went so far? He was just searching for food.” She asked a valid question, and he wondered with a sickening drop of his stomach if he had been fleeing something. The air tasted of smoke and an inbound storm.
Around half an hour later, raindrops began trickling down. The low rumble of thunder cut through the wood. Ephyr cast a worried glance at the remaining tracks. When the storm was over, they would surely have disappeared. Still, the last place he wanted them both to be was out in the thunder and rain. A quick look around revealed two large boulders with space between them. He knelt to let Nara down. It took hardly any time for him to knock several young trees over the gap. “Can I help?” she asked. Nearby, there grew soft ferns. He pulled some from the ground and handed it to her. They would need plenty, both to cover the roof he was constructing and to lay on the dirt to keep them from chill. She needed little direction and began to line the ground beneath the tree trunks he was carefully pushing together to keep out the rain. Working together, they had a shelter before the rains picked up their ferocity. He urged her inside and then joined her. His antlers barely fit in the space between the soil and the roof, but he managed well enough. Once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he saw that Nara clutched her toy close to her body. Her eyes were wide. “It is safer here in a storm.” Patiently, he waited for the round of thunder to pass. “The noise hides you. And most of the monsters do not care for the rain either. All we have to do is stay quiet and warm.” “That makes sense. Stay here and stay quiet.” Though she did not relinquish her tight grip on her doll, Nara’s posture relaxed. “That’s right.” Lightning lit the mist ablaze, and for a moment it appeared to be daytime outside. “In the morning, when the storm has passed, we shall find your father.” They settled into the ferns she had gathered and watched the rain pelt the mud and pool into puddles in their tracks. After a short while, the music of the distant thunder lulled them both to sleep. Voices cut through the space between the thunder. Ephyr’s head shot up, his antlers crashing into the trunks above their heads. Water spilled onto them in thin tendrils. “What’s happening?” He poked his head out just enough to see the orange glow of fire. Run or stay hidden? This was a question every Ren asks. The shelter they had constructed was small, but he decided to retreat further back, praying it was enough to remain out of sight. Now trapped behind him, Nara began to snivel. His attention shifted back to her. Perhaps the crying was involuntary, but it needed to end. “We must be very quiet. They may mean us no harm, but we are safest staying out of sight.” A lie. He was certain these were the strangers by the campfire they’d seen before the sun fled. In many ways, Humans had not made their transition to the isles well. However, in one way, they fell right into place: as a threat. The flame drew nearer; the voices rang louder. The danger grew more and more imminent with each passing second. With another flash of lightning, he saw that the rain had not yet completely washed their tracks from sight. If the strangers could track them from all that way, surely they would be able to see the tracks they had made while constructing the very shelter they hid in. It was clear now they should have run. But Ephyr remained frozen in place. Still, the child cried. As he deliberated on what action to take, his time expired. The fire and three dark shapes emerged from the tree cover. They were undoubtably searching, following the track-shaped puddles they had left behind them. They carried flame on clubs held close to the ground. “They stopped here, looks like. Lots of tracks.” They drew closer still. Ephyr held his breath. One of the strangers stepped just in front of them. “Have a gander at this.” Light flooded in, setting the space behind Ephyr’s eyes alight with pain. His ears roared. In an instant, he burst from their shelter, head down. His antlers sliced through flesh. “Bastard!” The torch dropped into the mud before the flame was extinguished. Ephyr whipped around but could not see the stranger. He had been blinded by the flame. Where had he gone? Without warning, pain shot up his leg. The stranger lay on the ground. In his hand he held a blade poised to strike again. Nara leapt onto that stranger’s back. As she tried to wrestle the knife from him, the other men closed in. One seized Nara by the arm. The other pointed his blade at Ephyr. “You’re one of those demons,” he said. “We are not fae.” “Why would we believe you, demon? Do you think we are going to let you go? Let you ambush us in our home?” another stranger asked. Their voices raised as the questioning continued. The man on the ground shoved Nara off and bared his knife. A wine-red spot crept across his tunic. As lightning lit up the wood, a gap in the grasses caught Ephyr’s eye. Before he could see it clearly, the light disappeared. “Nara. We must leave immediately.”
“You aren’t going anywhere, demon!” A black shape set upon the man. It made no noise; the stranger was dead before he slammed into the mud. The body of the man fell limp. Crimson blood caught the eye quicker than the creature that held the man’s neck in its jaws. From his throat, blood drained freely and mingled with the rainwater. “Bloody hell!” the bleeding stranger cried. Ephyr wasted no time trying to spot the monster. Instead, he leapt to Nara’s side. “We must go. Now.” The beast abandoned the corpse and leapt at the stranger who had yelled. As it set upon him, he shrieked and tried to sink his blade into the monster’s flesh. Instead of running away from the scene, Nara ran toward it, still clutching her doll. He resisted the urge to shout after her. The corpse of the man was her goal. She swept something up from the mud. A cry rang out over a clap of thunder. Ephyr ignored it, instead charging after Nara. It seems she had accomplished her goal, because she seized his pelt and pulled herself onto his shoulders. Together, they fled as the third stranger perished under the paws of a great wolf. A coysith. Branches and thorns tore at his face as they ran. She bounced against his shoulders. His legs burned as he dashed through the underbrush. “What was that?” Her voice broke in her terror. “That is the reason we stay quiet.”
The wood was cast in pale blue light by the time Ephyr finally stopped. Birds sang their predawn chorus. He no longer felt mud cling to his hooves as he walked, though Droplets still fell from the trees. The storm had passed. Each breath mingled with the mist around them, joining it. Panting, Ephyr stared back into the wood. He saw nothing, but many a Ren had died in the jaws of a coysith believing they were safe. Coysith were more silent than the owl, but that was not their deadliest trait. Their bodies, fabled to be woven from spider’s silk and fae’s tears, were almost invisible until they were upon their prey. After a long while, he decided they had not been followed. A blessing from Tsel-ev. As he looked back, he realized nothing looked familiar. They must have ventured much further to the south, toward the Human settlement of which he had heard King Ayalon speak. His ankle had stopped bleeding from the wound carved by the stranger’s knife. He had nearly forgotten it in the chaos. As he assessed their situation, Nara slid from his back and faced the direction from which they’d come. “We need to find his tracks again.” “They will be leveled by the storm.” Her grip tightened on the object in her hand. It did not shine like it had by the stranger’s fire, but it was unmistakable nonetheless. “What do you have.” It was not a question. “A knife. Now we don’t have to worry.” Pride was as clear on her face as the antlers growing from his head. “How well did that blade serve the corpse you took it from?” “It’s better than not having one at all.” Her grip adjusted on the handle. “If it did not save a grown Human, what use will it be to a crying child?” “I wasn’t crying; I’m too brave. You must be mistaken.” Not convinced, he contemplated doubling back the way they came. Moving forward was not an option. They had ventured too far and there was no point in wandering around without any sign of Nara’s father. However, the footprints were gone, and the last place they had seen those tracks was now being guarded by the coysith. The trees hissed before scores of red and orange leaves fell. He needed time to think. They found a cluster of parsnips not far from where they had stopped. She sliced the stems off and they ate as the sun rose. The taste reminded him of the walnuts he ate in the winter. Soon, he would share walnuts with his fawns. “Let’s go back to where we stopped for the night. We can try to pick up his trail from there.” Nara wiped her new blade on the still-damp grass. “And what of the monster?” “I am stronger than before.” She tucked the knife between the belt and her belly. Saying nothing, she climbed onto his shoulders. The idea held as much merit as any, though he still doubted her knife would be of any use. As they walked, the blue haze lost more and more color, returning to familiar grey. He slowed, trying to recognize something from their terrified dash through the wood. Had they gone downhill? Nothing looked the same in the daylight. North. If they simply traveled north, he would eventually be able to find his way back to the lea, and he could retrace their steps. He put his shadow to his left. Had they really gone that far in that short amount of time, or had they been running longer than he’d thought? Nara, likewise, seemed unsure. He looked up, searching for any kind of a landmark, even a small one that could prove they were walking in the right direction. Finally, she spoke. “Are you sure this was the way we came from?” “No. I am not.” Desperately, he peered through the fog for anything that he would remember from the previous night. It was quiet. Did the beasts of the area not know of Ren or Humans? Ephyr did not realize his fatal mistake. His hoof grazed a stone and it tumbled just a few inches down the hill. Beneath the mud the remainder of a ring of stones lay in wait. A shadow emerged from the haze. “Nara! My daughter!” As the shadow drew nearer, Ephyr realized it was a Human man. His face was home to the wrinkles not of an elderly man, but one aged by circumstance. “Father! You’ve found us!” Nara dove from Ephyr’s back. “You weren’t by the tree! I thought you were dead! Nara!” He pulled a worn brown hat from his head. Nara embraced the man, weeping. “I thought you were dead! Ephyr and I-” The Human’s attention shifted to Ephyr. “You. You led my daughter into this hell. Away from me!” “We were following-” “Demon! Go from us. Nara, we are going home.” He seized Nara by the shoulder, stepping between her and Ephyr. Ephyr caught a glimpse of her face past her father’s hip. Horrified, betrayed. “No, I am no demon!” He stepped closer. “I ensured no harm came to her! If-” The blade flashed as her father drew Nara’s knife. The cursed thing narrowly missed Ephyr’s snout. “I don’t care what kind of monster you are; I will slay you right here if you say one more word.” He released his grip on Nara. “Go. I will lead you home.” “Yes, father.” Her voice was a mouse’s sigh. They began to disappear into the mist. “Wait.” Nara stopped, and her father tried to urge her away. “What is your name?” “I am her father.” The Human’s growl, like that of a wolf, nearly caused him enough pause for them to vanish completely. Still, Ephyr repeated, “I asked what your name is.” “Father?” “Don’t listen to the demon’s tricks, Nara. Let’s go back to the tree, where it’s safe.” Fury burned in his belly. “I will ask you once more, fae. What is your name.” Nara peeked past her father. “Ephyr?” The man’s knuckles turned white as the fog around the knife’s handle. Ephyr did not think. His head dipped and in an instant, he was upon the being beside Nara. Weight dropped onto Ephyr’s skull. The blade of the knife halted just an inch above his eye, stopped only by Ephyr’s antlers tangling the man’s wrist. His other hand grasped Ephyr’s other antler, but Ephyr twisted his head in a desperate attempt to separate the knife from him. “Ephyr, stop it!” Nara cried, watching from a distance. “That’s my father!” “No, it is not your father!” He twisted his head further in one great motion. His stomach dropped when he felt a robust snap. The man let out an inhuman shriek, and the knife dropped past Ephyr’s nose to the ground. Above his antlers, the creature distorted and changed, transforming before his eyes. Its back contorted and collapsed in on itself. As it twisted, its arm pulled itself from his antlers. It was snapped in two like a twig. It threw its head back, screaming at the clouds. It’s jaws practically unhinged, and the teeth inside flashed to pins. Before it had fully transformed back, it began to flee. Ephyr chased after it, desperately tossing his head in an attempt to pierce the demon’s hide. It was too fast, and in an instant, it was shrouded by the fog. “You vile creature! You spiteful fae! May you rot!” Trembling, Nara’s stared into the mist after the fae, eyes wide as an owl’s. She clutched the filthy doll to her chest so tightly the stitching nearly burst. “My father…” “No, it was a fae and its tricks. That was not your father.” He nudged her shoulder with his snout. “Does that mean he’s dead?” Birdsong returned as Ephyr knelt beside her. “No, it means he has been in this area.” He stood. “I do now know which way we must go.”
She climbed onto his back, silent like a mouse. He thought he felt her tremble. Turning his back to the fae, they ventured on. Through streams and down a hillock they climbed until they reached the place of the two large boulders with the roof they had constructed. The mist had dispersed some, washed away by the rain and the rising sun. Two corpses waited to greet them. “Nara, look away.” Not heeding his own advice, he looked at the bodies. One was the first stranger to be overtaken by the beast. His gullet hung limply against his chest. His eyes were milky like a stagnant pool. The other body envied the eyes of the first. Puncture wounds riddled his face, and his cheek was torn wide open. Finally, there lay a puddle of congealing blood soaking into the mud. Clear ridges broke through the drying soil, formed as the third and final corpse was dragged into the forest. He stopped and waited for Nara to slide down to the ground. “Wait there. I will see if I can find anything.” As she walked to a space out of view from the bodies, Ephyr watched after her. The first time a fae impersonates a loved one is never easy. His mouth fell open, but he could not form the words to comfort her. Instead, he busied himself searching for any evidence of her father. The rains had washed the prints away, just as he had feared. Their own had melted into the ground, too. His eyes fell on the drag marks the coysith and the stranger had left for them. They remained there for a long time. “Nara, how certain are you that none of the strangers had boots?” “Completely sure.” Far down the trail lay a Human’s boot.
Had you asked him the previous day if he would willingly follow a coysith’s trail, Ephyr would have thought you mad. He thought himself mad. Briefly, he considered abandoning the task altogether. However, if Nara’s father had wandered into the territory of a coysith, his life was in grave danger. The path seemed well worn. Though Ephyr searched both sides for any sign of divergence, he could imagine a Human following the trail, not knowing better. Desperately, he sought snapped branches, trampled grass, any disruption. There was none. No sign that he diverged from this now-bloodied track. The wood opened into a clearing full of switchgrass. It was open, and it was silent. Not even the mist shielded the meadow. He stopped. The drag marks flattened the grass in a straight, unflinching line through the field. Obviously, the great wolf was not scared of anything. No, the only reason a coysith had to hide was to hunt. What qualms would it have about going into plain sight since it already had a kill? “Traveling through there would be unwise,” he said as he looked to the edges of the meadow. Could they avoid the clearing altogether? They may miss something important. He thought nothing of Nara climbing down from his back. Still, if the coysith saw them, they would no longer need to worry themselves over finding Nara’s father. Nara, however, stared ahead at her goal. It mattered not to her whether she had to climb mountains or swim through lakes infested with demons. To Nara, an open field was an open field, and nothing more. The least of the obstacles she would overcome to find her father. Without waiting for Ephyr, she stepped out of the tree line. In one hand, she gripped her knife. Her knuckles were white against the handle. With her other hand, still, she clutched her doll. “Nara! What are you doing?” She hesitated but did not turn around. “You don’t have to follow me, Ephyr.” As she walked further from the cover of the trees, Ephyr felt the thunder of his heart would call the coysith on its own. He danced anxiously in the brush. He could not let her venture alone. Finally, he crossed into the clearing. The only sound was what their feet made in the grass and a low buzzing of flies. Ephyr’s hoof scraped against something hard, but not as hard as a rock. He saw the Ren’s skull, half-buried in soil. It lacked antlers. Perhaps that of a doe or a buck who had been killed over the summer. Nara’s eyes fell to the skull. “Is that one of you?” “Yes.” She fell backward. “Are you not scared of it?” Her voice was deeply worried. “Am I afraid of the skull? No.” He stepped around it, avoiding damaging the last remnant of the unfortunate Ren. It occurred to him that he had never seen a coysith’s den. Possibly no living Ren ever had. He wondered if he would know what to look for, or if he would recognize it when they saw it. Would he only know it when the beast jumped out, jaws open? His hoof narrowly avoided the weathered skull of a hare. As they surmounted the hill in the field of bones, they saw it. An outcropping of rocks with bones scattering the path inside. Instead of Ren and animal skulls, these were Human. They seemed much more recent, as though the monster had newly developed a taste for them. Flies hummed louder in his ears, and a horrible smell assaulted his nose. It was a heavy smell that reminded him of a long-forgotten nest of eggs above a tree full of rotting apples. One skeleton, he assumed to be that of the stranger, was still stained pink. Its ribcage had been completely exposed before being abandoned by the beast. The bones hadn’t yet been washed by rain. Flesh still clung to the spaces between the ribs. His shirt, a tattered old thing, had been ripped to pieces and scattered around the body. Nara, seeing the corpse, stepped behind Ephyr. She did not look at it, as if by looking she might seal her own fate. Ephyr had no such worries. He gave the body a cursory glance, then looked past the coysith’s den. There were no signs that Nara’s father had moved forward through the meadow. Where had he gone? As he turned his head back to ensure he hadn’t missed a divergence from the coysith’s trail, his stomach dropped. In the tall grass lay another body. It looked a day or so older than that of the stranger. He perfectly matched the appearance of the fae’s illusion, straight down to the single boot that lay just a meter away. Before he could shield her, turn her away, Nara cried out for her father. She nearly tripped on another skeleton as she ran to him. “Father?” Ephyr stood behind her, unsure of what to say. She wept, but seemed afraid of getting too close. Her hand shuddered as it hovered above his ribcage. “Maybe it isn’t him.” She sniffed and wicked away the stream of liquid from under her nose. “He might have gotten away.” As he thought of what to say, his eyes drifted to the switchgrass beside them. It shifted unnaturally, as if it was being pressed down by an unseen force. His whole body tensed. It happened in a heartbeat. His antlers scraped against the dirt as he dipped his head. Nara bounced over his head and onto his spine. Hands seized the fur on his neck. He began to run as shape in the long grass jumped forward. Hair from his leg was ripped out by its roots. He turned and beheld the great wolf just behind them, tinted green with snow white hair between its teeth. His hooves chewed up the distance between them and the clearing, but the coysith on his heels was faster. He kicked out, smashing the coysith’s giant skull with his hooves. The beast fell, slipping along the grass with a sickening shriek. This only delayed the coysith for a moment, as it was back on its paws with renewed fury before they reached the tree line. Fallen logs, rocks, bones: they all tried to stop his progress. No, they could not have traveled this far to suffer the same fate as Nara’s father. They hurtled up a hill and, skidding to a halt, beheld the raging river cleaving the land in two. His lungs heaved as he turned. The great wolf, almost sneering, stepped into view. Its prey trapped, it crept closer and closer. As it moved, its pelt shifted, perfectly matching the grass around it. The coysith, snarling, leapt at them, paws outstretched. They collided with his ribcage and, in a moment of sickening dread, he fell. For a moment that felt all too long, they hung in the air above the churning water. The water froze him to his core and squeezed all the air from his lungs. A tug at his shoulders told him Nara had somehow managed to hold on. When their heads tore free from the water, the coysith was nowhere to be seen. With all his might, Ephyr fought the current, but mercilessly, it threw them under the surface once more. The river battered them against the banks, the riverbed. Mercilessly, it scraped them against rocks, doing all it could to end their journey. Ephyr and Nara both fought to stop the tumult; they fought for each and every breath. By the time Ephyr managed to haul them back onto shore, the sun had nearly departed. Haze had rolled back in, enveloping the cold wood in a thick blanket. Nara had not said a word as she dried herself and started a fire on the shore. They sat beneath a curved old river bank, safe from the threat of rain. He felt it safe to leave her only long enough to find another apple tree nearby. When he presented the apples to her, she simply stared at them. She made no move toward them, nor showed any emotion whatsoever. Ephyr felt it rude to eat, so left the apples near the fire, untouched. “Tsel-ev has a strange way of showing it, but he knows what is best.”
Despite the fire spitting out sparks in front of her, she shivered. Icy water spilled freely from her toy as she wrung it out. He sighed, sending a billow of winter-breath into the mist. “No one understands why Tsel-ev takes who he takes. I know it seems-” “I think I’d like to sleep.” She hugged her doll to her chest and lay upon the quickly-constructed bed of fern fronds. As she fell into a fitful sleep, he considered what to do. They could return to the lea. He could teach her of shrines and fae circles. She could learn to abide by the laws of the isles. Another shiver wracked her body. Winter would arrive in just a few short weeks and cover the isles with snow and ice. He could not get a more suitable garment. Was he to loan her his pelt? She had turned her nose at dandelions, how much more palatable would she find tree bark and nuts when winter froze the apples and parsnips? Humans hunted, but he could not teach her to capture hares. His mind wandered to her father. Why had he been sent to the isles? What crime could he have committed to warrant her punishment as well? Something serious? Then again, what could it matter what crime he committed? For as unflinching as King Ayalon could be, he would never punish a fawn for something their father had done. No, it was of no consequence what Nara’s father had done. Whatever he had done, she felt the same pain at the loss of him. No matter how many knives she kept, she still needed one hand free for her doll; no matter how brave she tried to be, she was still a child. He lay his head on the sand and closed his eyes. In the morning, he will have completed his duty to Nara and would return to Tsibia and his fawns.
Walls of stripped ironwood pierced the bottoms of the clouds. Sunrise had been hours ago, but they stood in almost complete darkness under the stockades. It was like nothing Ephyr had ever seen before. The works of Humans were truly confounding and grand when they aided one another. Nara, who had said almost nothing since he’d woken her sat upon his back. There seemed to be no opening in the giant wall as they passed. Surely they did not expect anyone to climb. A voice called down to them, saying, “Who goes there?” The woman who it belonged to was painted black against the morning sun. “I return this child to you.” “Does he have his entry papers, Ren?” Though he believed he already knew the answer, Ephyr looked back to Nara. She stared ahead blankly. No, she had nothing besides what she carried. “No, she does not.” “Then I cannot open the gate. Go now.” “You speak of Ren! Does that mean you have ventured out into the wood?” “Aye, I have.” “Then you know the dangers. The man who was sent there is dead. She has lost her father and her mother.” “Without entry papers, I cannot open the gate.” “Please, I beg you, do not send her back to die.” “There is nothing I can do. I protect those within this city, not those outside it.” “She is a child. I cannot provide-” “Please,” Nara said. Ephyr was not sure if the woman up on the wall would even be able to hear Nara’s small, choked voice. “I want to go back to my home. I want everything to go back to how it was.” “I’m sorry.” Somehow, these two simple words seemed crueler than anything they had faced in the days they had been traveling together. How often was this child to be bitten by venomous apathy? Someone besides him had to care for the fate of this child. The mist between them was so heavy that he could not see the woman’s expression, only her shape as she retreated back behind the wall. It seems the trees this far south had dropped all their leaves already. They stood naked against the white sky, and his hooves sunk into inches of the brown and decaying litter of their once-amber leaves. There was nothing more he could do. The walls had no opening, and he could not ask her to climb them. Perhaps he had no choice but to return to the lea with her in tow. After all, she could never truly go home. Not really. She could return to the place they had lived, to the fields where her father and her dog hunted foxes and stags. She could find every rainbow after the rain and chase it down to its source, but it would not be as it was. It could never be the same. Suddenly Nara spoke. Her voice was strangled by tears. “I don’t want to be like Mother and Father. I want to go home. I want to see the sun.” “Tell me of the Otherlands.” “There is sun every day, and open fields and flowers and there are no monsters. And there are stars.” That was the second time she had spoken of these stars. “And my mother and father are there, and we don’t have to worry.” Her eyes seemed very far away. They held the same love and longing that only one forever torn from something they adore could feel. Like a flower thriving in the sun, she was not meant to remain on the isles. “How did you come to be here, Nara?” “We came by sea, on a boat.” She motioned toward the great walls of the city. They walked the entire perimeter of the stockades. In fact, there was no opening, and no way to reach the boats that had docked south of the city, though they could see them when they stood on a peninsula to the east. Somehow the ships stood even taller than the walls, with great white sails. He had never before seen the southern sea. Was it always so wild? Livid wind whipped the sails to and fro, and made the waves crash up the dark sides of the ships. He stood there thinking for a long time as Humans filled some ships up and emptied others. They rested and ate, and all the while Ephyr watched the Humans on the docks. “We can’t get there. If we could, there would be no Humans left outside the walls.” Her little voice was that of one already defeated. Perhaps she was right, and perhaps she was wrong. In any case, Ephyr would ensure there was no way to return her to her own kind before admitting defeat and returning to King Ayalon. After a short while, a ship that had been filled departed the docks and made a lazy turn in their direction, though remained a ways out from the coastline. Its billowing sails cut the ship through the white-tipped waves. Nara’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. “Did you hear that?” His ears twitched. “What did you hear?” He realized then the only noise he could hear was the waves crashing far below the cliff on which they stood. “Howling.” He had heard stories, terrible stories, of those who heard the coysith’s cry. No matter where they ran, no matter how they hid, the great wolf would always find them in time. They could not be helped, only comforted. Scent led a coysith to the ends of the isle and back, without fail. Had it found her scent where they had camped? Or had the monster kept her father’s scent close in its mind?
“We must go.” His heart galloped in his chest and ice seized his muscles. They charged through the grass toward the forest to the north. His thoughts raced faster than his hooves. What could he do? The isle was now even more perilous, and he could no longer protect her. Just as they reached the end of the cape, a shadow cut across his path. Its face was bruised and swollen. It was stark white against the rest of its dark fur that swam as though it, too, was made of swirling mist. One eye had swelled completely shut, and the other stared at him with a silent fury. The coysith tossed up its head. Nara’s grip tightened on his fur as she heard its ear-piercing howl. Ephyr, hearing nothing, turned and fled the way he came. The great wolf and its long legs carried him even faster and soon Ephyr felt weight land squarely on his flank. Nara shrieked. The sickening sound split the air as the beast’s jaws slammed shut. Ephyr turned. The wolf’s jaws locked onto Nara’s toy. As she let go, the creature slipped from his back. The ship was passing the point of the peninsula now, and a thought burst into Ephyr’s mind. “Nara hold onto me, tightly!” The creature ripped the doll to pieces and set its sights onto them once more. Nara wrapped her arms around Ephyr’s neck and he saw the end of the island draw near. Just as he leapt, a set of bloodied teeth sank into his ankle. His front legs slammed into the side of the precipice and for a sickening moment, they hung. They hung, staring at the rocks and hungry waves. The creature, large as it was, was still not strong enough to hold Ephyr and Nara and itself. Its claws slipped, and the three of them fell.
A deafening snap informed Ephyr that he was, in fact, still alive. It was not until the next moment that Ephyr realized it had been his own leg that had made the horrid noise. As he kicked his front legs to right himself in the swirling waves, they both cried in pain. Tendrils of scarlet ribbons trailed after his hind leg. Blood oozed from his bite wound and disappeared into the sea’s vast waters. After drinking in a lungful of air, he cried, “Nara!” He spun, searching the whitecapped waves. “Nara! Where are you?” Her head popped out of the water as she sputtered and paddled against the current. Forcing through the pain, he swam to her and urged her to grab onto his side. “Are you hurt?” she asked. With a great deal of pain, he set his sights on the ship. It seemed much further away now than it had a moment before. However, he had made the decision for the both of them, and it was much too late to change his mind. “No, I am not hurt.” As he swam toward the ship in the distance, the coysith, limping, dragged itself onto the rocky shore. It tried to climb the sheer cliff, but there was no path back up to land. It collapsed on the rocks, waves lapping at its paws. Its fate was sealed. If it could not find shallow land, it would perish. Nara, gripping onto Ephyr’s neck, saw the coysith and its unfortunate fate. “There’s nowhere to climb up. How will we get back?” She adjusted her grip, and he winced as her weight shifted them in the water. “We are not—” He stifled a cry as he continued to paddle. “—going back.” She looked to the cape, then to the ship on the horizon. “We’ll never make it all the way out there!” You must try. Every single stroke sent a fresh wave of agony up his legs. Holding on with one hand, she paddled with the other. The grey of the clouds above began to bleed. His legs fatigued, shaking more and more with each beat. He stared ahead to the sails that glowed amber as the leaves. Nara was right: they would not make it. He felt himself slow. “Ephyr.” Nara’s voice was pleading. With a grunt, he forced out another strong stroke through the water. “Ephyr, look.” The sails folded in on themselves, and the ship slowed. Just a little more. The sea stung his eyes; he felt them redden and weep. Voices murmuring inaudible things avoided his ears. His limbs still cried and it became harder and harder to keep his head above the waves. “What is that?” The words were clearer now. They were drawing close. “It’s not a birch branch.” “It looks like a stag.” “Help us!” Nara pulled herself further out of the water. His heart was an anchor as Ephyr heard the sailors say, “What do we do? We cannot pull them up.” “What if they’re fae?” Two more stinging strokes of his front legs. “This is Nara. And I am Ephyr.” Silence. “We are not fae.” “Raise the mainsail.” As the sailors began to scramble upon the deck, Ephyr called out to them. “Then you shall watch us—” His head fell beneath the water for a moment. “—you shall watch us drown and our blood will be on your heads.” They stopped. Silence. Some peered over the rail at them. The loudest silence Ephyr had ever heard. The sun continued its race to the horizon. “Throw the line!” A rope fell into the water beside them. A loop had been tied in the end. Nara released his pelt and seized the rope instead. Once her foot was inside the loop, the sailors drew it up to the ship’s deck and with it, Nara. Relief washed over him like the waves of water. She was safe. Once she was safely on deck, the blood trailing behind him was clearly seen. “By the gods, Ephyr! You said you weren’t hurt!” She pleaded with the sailors. “Pull him up too! He’s injured! He won’t have the strength to get back to shore!” The Humans looked down at him hesitantly, but tossed the rope out once more. He took it in his mouth and held on as tightly as he could. As the sailors pulled it back up, it slipped from his teeth. “Try again; you have to try again.” Her voice was growing more and more desperate. Though he had already given up on the idea of being pulled up onto the deck of the ship, once again he took hold of the rope in his teeth; again, they attempted to pull him up and again it slipped from his mouth. “Please, you have to hold on stronger, Ephyr.” There was so much he wanted to tell her. He wanted to warn her of how things would be once she returned home. How it would not be as it was. Of some of the struggles she would have to overcome. To keep chasing her rainbows. But he could hardly keep his mouth above the water to say simply, “You must make this journey on your own.” He turned to face the isles. “Ephyr!” “We cannot stay here,” said one of the men as the others raised the sails. Much too soon, they were out of earshot. Nara’s cries drowned in the setting sun. Then it was silent. Not the silence he was used to, no. This was not the silence made by a thousand beings hiding, praying not to be noticed. He was truly and completely alone. Darkness crept in, and as his legs tired, he was forced to tilt his head up just to breathe. That’s when he saw them. Millions upon millions of lights floating above his head. They curled around ribbons of blue, and embraced billowing clouds of amethyst. Though he had never seen them – he doubted any Ren had seen them – he knew their name. He understood Nara’s love for them. Stars. Far, far away, deep, deep in the wood, a newly crowned mother cleaned the stains of birth from her two newly born fawns. As she did, she mourned the absence of her mate. Clumsily, unsteadily, both of the fawns stood and looked out to the mist just outside. Perhaps with enough strength, they too would come to see the stars.